“Gamma Ray” Beck

The subdued frequencies on the top end of the track could have lead some mastering engineers down the wrong path. “Upon first hearing it, your first impulse would be to brighten it up a bit,” explains Ludwig.
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“Gamma Ray” | Beck
(click thumbnail)Single: “Gamma Ray”

Album: Modern Guilt (Interscope)

Date Mastered: April to July 2008 at Gateway Mastering in Portland, Maine

Producers: Beck and Danger Mouse

Engineers: Drew Brown and Darrell Thorp

Mixers: Darrell Thorp

Mastering Engineeer: Bob Ludwig

Other Projects: One of our industry’s most prolific mastering engineers, Ludwig has put the finishing touches on albums for artists ranging from the Rolling Stones to Nirvana and Sly & the Family Stone to Coldplay.

Single Songwriter: Beck

Mastering Monitors: Eggleston Works Ivy speakers (serial numbers 1 and 2) with bridged Cello Performance Mark II amplifiers and Transparent Audio Opus MM speaker cables

Mastering Console: Sound Performance Laboratory MMC-1 eight-channel analog surround console

Analog Playback Machine: Ludwig’s “stock” Ampex ATR-102 1-inch analog

Select Mastering Processor: “one of many look-ahead limiters” such as the Junger, TC Electronics Finalizer, Sound Performance Laboratories Loudness Maximizer, or WAVES L1, L2, L3 and L316Engineer’s Diary

Truly renowned mastering engineer Bob Ludwig recently wrapped an atypically lengthy mastering session with avant-garde pop star Beck for Modern Guilt —the latest full-length album featuring the single, “Gamma Ray” —at his Gateway Mastering facility in Portland, Maine. “Gamma Ray” —a sneaky, slinky, low-key jam with a swinging surf-y ‘60s vibe —required Ludwig to be careful in how he left his fingerprints.

“They liked their mixes a lot and they wanted it hot,” offers Ludwig of his only directive from the self-producing artist and co-producer, Danger Mouse. “Having worked with Beck before, I knew that his lyrics are extremely important to him. However, having said that, he doesn’t like them emphasized too much. I guess I’m trying to say that there’s a real fine line in between just right and too much; a little enhanced is way too much and a little back is way too back.”

(click thumbnail)Mastering Engineer Bob LudwigThe subdued frequencies on the top end of the track could have lead some mastering engineers down the wrong path. “Upon first hearing it, your first impulse would be to brighten it up a bit,” explains Ludwig. In the past — on Beck’s previous albums and probably back to Odelay — I would do that and the response would be, ‘No, we like it better dull.’ But it turns out that it is all in service of the vocal. If you take many of the tracks on the new record and brighten them, it enhances things you don’t want to enhance: ticky little hi-hat effects, cymbals, and other things that may take your ear away from the emotion of the vocal.”

For limiting, Ludwig looked at his arsenal of compression tools and picked what he knew would be best for the job … but he’s not telling. “There are many of these look-ahead limiters,” he explains. “They all sound different and they all are not created equal. Sometimes these various compressors are more euphonic with a certain song. That’s one of the secrets of a good mastering engineer: knowing — really well — the sound of all your tools. You hear something in your head and say, ‘I know just the sound for that.’ Mastering isn’t just making it loud. It’s finding that sweet spot between ‘competitively loud’ and most musically dynamic and satisfying … unless the A&R or the artist insists on crunching it to death, which is always terrible news.”